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Guest Writer

Enough about you
The way I used to love
by Rachel Mendez

loved him completely once, in that way I used to love: no reservations, no shame. I spent the evening with him in London, 1984 – an evening so perfect that afterwards I walked over bridges wondering if there was any point in continuing to live, since I'd just experienced perfection.

In time, though, like Eve in the garden, I learned to feel shame for my naked adoration. And, to be truthful, he changed, too. He lost his edge, stopped shouting, stopped drinking too much, started obsessing over loss, started telling long stories too slowly. It wasn't as fun to spend time with him anymore. His introspection got on my nerves. I moved on.

I'm speaking, obviously, of Elvis Costello, who I first heard as a sophomore in college. One of my housemates, a rich boy, had a record player that, instead of lying flat, stood on its edge. The record locked into place and the needle tracked across the surface, supposedly putting less wear on the vinyl grooves. He had big speakers with perfect sound, this rich boy, and a small grin, as he turned the volume way up, lit a cigarette and let me hear, for the first time, Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom.

I wish I could make you hear the first song on that album as I write this. I wish you knew what it was like to be in that living room with the late winter sun making sharp angles through the rich boy's cigarette smoke and the scratchy hiss of the needle on the record.

There's a small shout, perhaps someone in the band signaling the start of the song. There's the sound of the hi-hat and one note from the bass before the guitar starts. Then Elvis starts singing, in this weird voice, a voice that shouldn't logically have sold millions of records. A voice more suited, one could argue, for a cartoon frog.

I won't write more about the music. To describe the sound or how it made me feel would be harder than describing the smell of moss and earth on the hill behind my childhood home, where I'd play with miniature cars and round, wooden people, pretending the moss was a forest. And besides, either you love the music or you don't; I can't expect you to love it just because I did or because of how I describe it.

Like the time I shared with my housemates the cookies my grandmother mailed me every Christmas – cookies that tasted perfect to me, the best cookies ever made, but which my housemates took one bite from and then tossed to the dog, citing unbearable staleness. Let's just say that Imperial Bedroom grabbed me by the proverbial balls and I fell in love with Elvis Costello. His earlier albums, I soon discovered, were even greater, because he screamed and yelled, was angry and drunken.

I was so broke in those days that I rarely bought music. I bummed music off other people, making cassette copies or taping music off the radio. But I did buy a few Elvis Costello tapes and bought little speakers for my Walkman so I could listen to music in my car.

I remember bringing home the cassette version of Punch the Clock when the album was brand new, driving back up the curvy Vermont hills from Brattleboro to Marlboro. I remember the very curve where I first heard that album, at least as much of it as I could before my Walkman batteries ran down. It was the curve by the auto-body place, about a half-mile out of Brattleboro. This album wasn't nearly as good as the earlier work, but in those days I was blind to his faults and in the car that day I listened carefully, trying to decipher each word and holding the melodies in my head like truffles on the tongue.

A few years later I was at graduate school learning to be a world-famous painter when I told someone that I liked Elvis. "Oh yeah?" he said. "I thought only pimply, nerdy college boys with no friends liked Elvis Costello." That was the moment I put my cassettes back in their boxes and never listened to them again.

Was I that shallow? Could a casual remark lump me, who I thought to be original, unusual and cool, with a subclass of pimply, friendless boys?

I think I probably was that shallow. But maybe it was just time for some new music in my life and, by that point, Elvis had changed. His lyrics now seemed more important to him than his music. You couldn't shout along to his new music. You had to croon it, singing each syllable long and low.

Recently, though, my boyfriend, knowing of my past obsession, gave me a tall stack of Elvis CDs – most of which I'd never heard of, or had only owned on pirated cassettes. Among them was Imperial Bedroom. He loaded the five-disc player with Elvis and said, "We'll just get some Crazy Glue and glue this shut."

I laughed, not sure I wanted to hear that much Elvis, not even sure I liked him anymore since he'd made all those bad albums, changed his name from the fake "Elvis Costello" to the real one – Declan McManus – performed on top of a white convertible stretch limo with Burt Bacharach in some wacky comedy film and married jazz diva Diana Krall. It was like being confronted with the boy I had a crush on in 8th grade.

There was also some shame in being 41 and once again listening to the music that defined my early adulthood. If I listened to Elvis again, I'd be no different than the musically stunted people who listen to those Classic Rock radio stations.

Once the CDs started playing, though, the music was good. It was really good. We listened to it every day for a month, that load of five CDs. We've rotated a few out by now, replaced them with some non-Elvis.

But when we push "random" and "play," Elvis returns every few songs and he sounds damn fine.

Find more from Rachel in our archives.

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